/ 12 December 2007

Car bomb kills Lebanese army chief contender

A car bomb killed a Lebanese general in a leafy Christian suburb overlooking Beirut on Wednesday, removing a leading contender to take over as army chief from General Michel Suleiman when he becomes president.

The attack heightened tension in Lebanon where rival leaders are embroiled in a tussle over the Presidency that has fuelled the biggest political crisis since the 1975 to 1990 civil war.

Brigadier General Francois al-Hajj, head of army operations, and several bodyguards were killed in the early morning blast that hit his car in Baabda, a military statement said.

Hajj was the ninth fatality in a string of assassinations that began with the 2005 killing of ex-premier Rafik al-Hariri.

A senior judicial source said only Hajj and his bodyguard were killed when the 35kg bomb went off in Baabda, an area that houses the presidential palace and several embassies. Security sources earlier put the death toll at five.

The explosives, packed into an olive-green BMW car, were detonated by remote control, security sources said.

Hajj, in his early 50s, had been seen as one of two main contenders for the post of army chief, traditionally a Maronite Christian. The top army job would be vacant if Parliament elects Suleiman president in a much-delayed vote now slated for Monday.

Hajj helped lead an army onslaught on al-Qaeda-inspired militants at the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon earlier this year in which 168 soldiers and about 230 Fatah al-Islam fighters were killed.

The blast at 7am. (5am GMT) hurled Hajj’s car 50m away and set other vehicles on fire. Several buildings were damaged. Charred metal littered the blackened streets.

Soldiers cordoned off the area as firefighters and rescue workers put out blazes and rushed the wounded to hospital.

Political deadlock

Lebanese politicians from the Western-backed ruling coalition and the Hezbollah-led opposition denounced the attack.

”The latest criminal explosion … is a link in the terrorist chain directed at Lebanon and its institutions, foremost among them the national army, which today pays the price for defending Lebanon’s sovereignty, independence and free will,” majority leader Saad al-Hariri said in a statement.

Hezbollah urged the Lebanese to ”unite and rally around the army and its national role and to work seriously and effectively towards political consensus”.

Syria denounced the assassination, and state news agency Sana quoted an official source as saying Israel and its ”tools in Lebanon” were the beneficiaries of the blast.

The army has stayed largely neutral in Lebanon’s political turmoil and is seen as a unifying force, especially after the Nahr al-Bared battle prompted Lebanese to rally behind it.

On Monday, Lebanon’s Parliament speaker postponed the presidential election to December 17, the eighth delay to the vote.

Pro- and anti-Syrian factions agreed last week that Suleiman should take the Presidency, reserved for a Maronite. It has been vacant since the term of Emile Lahoud ended on November 23.

Arab and Western states fear a prolonged vacuum in the Presidency could further destabilise Lebanon, where rival camps have accused each other of rearming and training fighters.

No group immediately claimed responsibility for Hajj’s killing. It followed eight deadly attacks on anti-Syrian politicians and journalists. The most recent was a September 19 car bomb that killed Christian lawmaker Antoine Ghanem.

Some Lebanese politicians accuse Syria of carrying out the killings. Damascus has denied any involvement.

The United Nations Security Council called on Tuesday for the presidential election to be held without delay to avoid ”a further deterioration of the situation in Lebanon”. – Reuters